Throughout the month of February, I'm going to be tackling diverse reads. Of course, to do so, I felt like I needed to consider the question that rears its head every time I think about diversity: what counts?
When I finished the mystery 1222 by Norwegian author Anne Holt, I noted the title and author in my reading journal, then paused. Usually when I read a diverse book, I'll mark it with "POC" for Person of Color. Except, while 1222 was obviously a diverse read for me, set in a foreign country, starring a lesbian in a wheelchair, there were no non-white people. On the surface, this is an issue of my notation not being robust enough--I suppose I should use "DIV" for diversity instead. But I struggle with my notation all the time, and it's not just about which word I use. Do foreign countries count as diversity? All foreign countries? Even ones I visited or lived in? What about foreign characters? Or what if the main character is white, but her best friend is African American? Or Polish? Or poor? What if the author is Chinese but the book is about a white girl? Do I count characters with physical disabilities? What about mental disabilities or learning disabilities? Or different sexual orientations?
Obviously there isn't a simple definition for diversity. And, as a white, protestant, middle class, straight, female, American, etc., my definition of diversity is going to be different from someone else's definition.
Which is why, back in February 2010, when I read Melvin Burgess' seminal work about heroin addiction, Junk, I counted it towards my diverse reading. As I said then:
"White author, white characters, even takes place in my current home of Bristol... [but] Upon reading JUNK, I quickly realized I wasn't cheating at all. I'm a little ashamed to admit how goody-goody I am. I've never smoked, inhaled or shot-up anything. Really. Alcohol gives me headaches. And I was one of those kids who got good grades, had nice friends, mostly did what I was supposed to do... I think I'm more rebellious as an adult than I ever was as a kid. So I don't think I'm stretching at all when I say that reading JUNK was definitely an encounter with a world different from my own."
My full review is here.
But I'm uncomfortable with simply defining diversity as anything that's unfamiliar to me. Surely diversity shouldn't be all about me. As a reader, and even more so as a writer, I keep coming back to a book review I read last fall (by The Booksmugglers, my absolute favorite reviewers!):
"That said, at the end of the day, it is so freaking encouraging and inspiring to read a book featuring such a female-positive story with such a bunch of diverse characters that I almost wish I didn’t have to say the obvious: the heroine of this story is still the white, middle class, cisgender character and everybody else – as awesome as they are – are still secondary characters in her drama. Mind you, this does not make the book any less lovely or [main character]’s experience any less important – it is just an observation about the overwhelming amount of stories featuring just that type of protagonist that are available to us."
We have to write about what we know, what's true to us. And bravo for this author including diversity, and perhaps venturing out of her comfort zone. But does it really change anything?
Of course, part of the reason for this February reading challenge is to expand my own horizons. But another part of the challenge is to support, learn about, and celebrate authors, books, and people who might not get as much attention or traction because of their class, race, disabilities, etc.
So in conclusion... I still don't have a definition for diversity. And I still don't know if I can count Beth Kephart's Small Damages, this beautiful book I've been eyeing lately, and considering because it's set in Spain. But I'm definitely counting Kate Milford's The Broken Lands for its portrayal of a trafficked Chinese girl learning about her culture, because even though she's not the main character, and the author is white, I learned a ton, and to my eyes everything about it was done sensitively.
And perhaps that's the answer. Some books I might read and not tell you about and not count. Others I will. Some portrayals of race or class might be inaccurate, or even offensive. Some I will know personally are accurate. And there will be shades of gray and I will get things wrong, but perhaps all of that is what this challenge is about too. And I'm looking forward to it.